'Inclusive' Mass readings: why the rush?

'Inclusive' Mass readings: why the rush?

Michael Gilchrist

This journal has highlighted recent moves to introduce 'inclusive' language into the English edition of the new Catechism and into the Ordinary of the Mass. In the case of the Catechism, as a result of considerable opposition to the initial 'inclusive' translation, the Vatican called for drastic revisions, and it is only after long delays that the Catechism is to be available this month in English-speaking countries.

In the case of revised wordings in the Mass, AD2000 has reported on the success of U.S. liturgy groups in prompting a majority of U.S. bishops to refuse approval to ICEL's proposed 'inclusive' edition of the Sacramentary (the official Roman Missal, containing the Confiteor, Gloria, Nicene Creed, Eucharistic Prayers, etc.).

Not so clear-cut, it seems, is the situation regarding the Lectionary, or book which contains Scripture readings for weekday and Sunday Masses, where moves are afoot to introduce 'inclusive' language. This represents a curious anomaly in that while 'inclusive' language has been curbed in the new Catechism and Sacramentary, apparently it will be granted open entry to liturgies through the Lectionary.

The Australian Bishops' Conference Bulletin of August 1993 reported (p. 5) that Australia was to publish its own Lectionary using the 'inclusive' New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation of the Bible, one, which they say, "has already been approved for liturgical use in Australia" and "has been adopted by Canada and the USA for new lectionaries ...".

Already, seemingly in anticipation of ultimate official sanction, individual parishes are using printed sheets with 'inclusive' translations of readings and Psalms while many priests make their own 'inclusive' insertions ad libitum - a situation typical of the liturgical laissez-faire which has prevailed since Vatican II, with its ever-recurring lesson that disobedience to Church discipline will be inevitably vindicated.

There is no indication that the Vatican has yet approved the publishing of new Lectionaries using the 'inclusive' NRSV or any other similar translations, and in the light of Rome's recent response to the English edition of the new Catechism, and the U.S. bishops' reaction to the ICEL Sacramentary - even before that reaches the Vatican for final approval - such approval seems unlikely.

It is true that the U.S. bishops did approve an 'inclusive' Lectionary in November 1992, (which still awaits approval in Rome), but since then, as indicated, they have been increasingly resisting approval of any introduction of 'inclusive' language into the Mass. One bishop, for example, commented at the November 1993 U.S. Episcopal Conference: "To me, the whole text of the Sacramentary is flawed beyond remedy" (Catholic World Report, January 1994, p.33). Other U.S. bishops, once alerted to the flaws in the ICEL draft, have voiced similar criticisms.

The same growing awareness is evident in the case of the Grail Psalter, a new 'inclusive language' translation of the Psalms also being proposed for liturgical use. While no objections were advanced against the Psalter when it was first submitted for an imprimatur, New York's Cardinal John O'Connor now states that "his representatives on the committee of scholars which reviewed it pointed to over 1000 difficulties in the translation" (Catholic World Report, January 1994).

The Pope has also shown himself to be conscious of such potential pitfalls in vernacular translations when he made his views abundantly clear to a group of U.S. bishops during their ad limina visit to Rome (L'Osservatore Romano, 15 December 1993):

"One of your responsibilities ... is to make available exact and appropriate translations of the official liturgical books so that, following the required review and confirmation by the Holy See, they may be an instrument and guarantee of a genuine sharing in the mystery of Christ and the Church: lex orandi, lex credendi.

"The arduous task of translation must guard the full doctrinal integrity and, according to the genius of each language, the beauty of the original texts ...

"When the faithful gather to celebrate the work of our redemption, the language of their prayer - free from doctrinal ambiguity and ideological influence - should foster the dignity and beauty of the celebration itself, while faithfully expressing the Church's faith and unity."


And, from a different perspective, comes a further argument for querying the introduction to Catholic worship of the 'inclusive' New Revised Standard Version Lectionary. This comes in the form of a review in The Journal of Theological Studies (October 1992, pp. 545-550) by Rev Prof John Barton. It is all the more telling, since Prof Barton indicates that he not opposed in principle to the use of 'inclusive' language as such within the liturgy.

The NRSV translation, says the professor, has "gone to far greater lengths to accommodate ['inclusive language']" than its current counterpart, The Revised English Bible. He is critical of such an approach from an historical viewpoint: "The Bible comes from a culture that was in important ways what modern people would call 'sexist', and to obliterate this in translation is in principle just as objectionable as to obliterate the fact that it was a slave-owning or nationalistic culture ... to 'degender' passages which, in ancient Hebrew society, were undoubtedly meant to refer to men and not women is to distort the text ...".

Barton goes further — 'inclusive' language in the Bible is not only unhistorical, but "dishonest": "Why in any case should anyone be so anxious to eliminate all 'sexist' language from the Bible? If it is believed that the Bible is radically 'non-sexist' and that generations of translators have obscured the fact, well and good; though to show this would be something of a tour de force. But if the reason is that we disapprove of sexism and so want to clean up the Bible so that we shall not find it there, is not this essentially dishonest?"

It will be yet another disorienting experience for Catholics in the pews if they are to encounter on the one hand during Mass, a Sacramentary purged of ICEL's 'inclusive' language, while on the other, an 'inclusive' Lectionary. For some worshippers this could be the last straw.

Would it not be more prudent at least to await the fate of the ICEL translations of the Sacramentary (especially in view of the radical shift in thinking among many U.S. bishops) before proceeding in haste with an 'inclusive' Lectionary?

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